“‘Use it up. Make it do. Do without.’ Back then, it was a way of life.”

By Doris Reinke


      It is referred to as a “recession” today. Back in the 1930s it was called the “Depression.”

      An old timer (and that expression means someone who is elderly enough to have been a child in the ‘30s) has a difficult time regarding the present day hard times with those that they remember from their childhood.

      Instead of inflation, there was deflation. Anyone who had some kind of a job, even at 25 cents per hour, could manage to survive because prices in stores were very low accordingly. The advertisements in a 1937 edition of the local newspaper provide a glimpse of conditions then.


      Kroger’s Grocery Store – bananas, five pounds for 25 cents; lemons, 25 cents per dozen

      National Tea Store – lettuce, two heads for 13 cents

      Pfaffenberger’s Grocery – cornflakes on sale at two boxes for 19 cents; smoked ham at 19 cents a pound

      Palenshus’ Model Market – two pounds of hamburger at 29 cents; 10 bars P&G soap at 39 cents

      The Mode in the Loraine Hotel offered dresses for $1.

      The Chicago Store had dresses for $1.19.

      The Fashion Beauty Shop charged $3.50 for a permanent.

      Gamble store offered a Coronado wringer-washing machine at $32.95.

      Corey’s Food Market sold coffee for 25 cents a pound and gave away a free cereal bowl with it.

      All of these stores were downtown of course.

      One feature of that long-ago depression was similar to this recession – the problem of the homeless.

      Major cities, which had thrived on heavy manufacturing then, found themselves with unemployment rates of 40 to 50 percent. Many of the workers became homeless and walked or hitchhiked from one city to another seeking some kind of a job.

      A large portion of them hitched a ride in the freight cars of the then numerous trains.

      The city of Elkhorn set up a Tramp Shelter down by the tracks, which was known as “Hotel Deluxe.” The old building, which was empty in the daytime, had double bunks the full length of one room and had a wood stove which provided heat and a cooking surface.

      Tramps, as they were called, had to be out of town by early morning. Nightly and morning checkups by the police made sure this rule was enforced.

      It was a very difficult period in the nation’s time because there were no safety nets as there are today.

      There was no Medicare or Medicaid, no unemployment compensation, no free school lunches, no student loans or scholarships, and no social security payments.

      In desperation, a meager system of “Relief” was set up.

      It provided no money, only a supply of basic food. By basic, this meant flour, sugar, condensed milk, canned vegetables and canned fruit.

      Vouchers allowed a family to obtain coats and shoes, which were specifically labeled for “Relief” customers. A caseworker visited each family monthly to make sure they still qualified for help.

      It is often remarked that the people who went through the 1930s Depression are different. They have never forgotten the slogan which proclaimed:

                  Use it up.

                  Make it do.

                  Do without.

      Back then, it was a way of life.

      Doris Reinke is a Walworth County historian, docent at the Webster House Museum, 9 E. Rockwell St., Elkhorn, and retired educator.


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